Cusband and Wife? And What About the Children?

While I was off eating turkey and the like, a whole bunch of comments piled up here.  I’ve tried to work through most of them, but I wanted to get this up to, even if it is short. 

This story appeared in yesterday’s NYT.   It’s about marriage between first cousins, which is illegal in much of the United States, but permissible in a few states and many countries and cultures.   Indeed, the article notes that slightly more than 10% of marriages world-wide are between first cousins.  (I believe that my grandparents, who came from Eastern Europe, were second cousins or closer.) 

Many people object to first cousin marriages, and quite a few do so based on concerns about the possibility of an increased risk of genetic defects in their offspring.   The article devotes a good deal of space to this concerns and refers to a 2002 study showing less risk than had been expected and also a couple of competing views in the study.  

Apart from general interest, there was one observation that struck me and got me thinking a bit.   Dr. Alan Bittles is a researcher in Australia and one of the authors of the 2002 study.   He observed that:    

People with severe disorders like Huntington’s disease, who have a 50 percent chance of passing it on to their offspring, are not barred from marrying because of the risk of genetic defects, he said, so cousins should not be, either.

I think it is important not to conflate marriage with having children.   Some people marry and do not have children while other people have children and do not marry.   And while the subject of the article is about first-cousin marriage, the focus of concern may really be first cousin’s having children.  

That said, I think the point made is an interesting one.    I would not suggest that people who carry heritable diseases be prohibited from having children, even where there is a fairly substantial risk that the diseases will occur in the offspring.   Is that position inadequately sensitive to the needs of the contemplated-but-not-yet-concieved child?  

I wonder about this because I think others have suggested here that we need to consider the rights of children who might be created in determining whether people should become parents.  The discussion so far has largely been about same-sex parents and/or single parents.   But if we should be concerned about the anticipated children in those cases, why shouldn’t we be equally concerned with carriers of heritable diseases? 

Now to me, one thing that might distinguish the situations in the possible utility of genetic screening.  Thus, it would be possible for those carrying heritable diseases to create a number of embryos via IVF and use pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PIGD) to screen for those embryos that would not develop into children with the various diseases.  I don’t exactly know what the state of current science is, but I believe it is at least possible for a number of genetic traits.  

Of course, the same technology would be available to first-cousins.   So it seems to me that just as genetic screening could allow carriers of heritable diseases to reproduce without too much fear, so it could do the same for first cousins.  

This also makes me think more about the future of genetic screening and related technologies.  On part (and I know it is only a part) of the objection to unknown gamete donors is that a child would lose access to genetic information that might be important.  But genetic history might be a good deal less important if we can more accurately understand our own codes.    Thus, a family history of this or that is important if we have no way of examining my genes and telling if I have that trait.  But if we can examine my genes directly, then the family history is far less important.  

I’m not saying we’re there, by the way.  Just that it seems like we may well be on the way there.   It seems that just as science/medicine is hardly done presenting us with new challenges.  





25 responses to “Cusband and Wife? And What About the Children?

  1. As someone who has been involved with considerable work with Bangladeshis (Sylhetis in particular) who only traditionally marry cousins, I can vouch that multi-generational first cousin marriages produce a defect rate of of over 25% generally but in many families more than 50%. As recessive disorders concentrate in a family group each member of the family ends up with a 50% chance of carrying around 5 or 6 recessive disorders which gives each child a 25% chance of being born with any of approximately 3 disorders.

    I agree that a one-off first cousin marriage or even a half-sibling marriage (as practiced by the Kingston clan) has a lowish rate of genetic disease. However, the more often intra-family marriage is perpetuated, the more genetic issues proliferate.

    My understanding of first cousin marriages being forbidden is because of the cultural attitude to incest. In some cultures a first cousin is treated more like a sibling and so incest rules are attached. In the Ethiopian Jewish community and Christian community a person may not marry within even a third cousin range because extended families are so close.

    The interesting point to ponder is whether the law should restrict sexual relations between donor conceived relatives. Since a donor in many states is considered as never having been related to his offspring and half-siblings via the donor are not considered as related, there are zero legal constraints on sex or even marriage. Should such relationships be banned in your view? I’m guessing you will say no.

    • I suppose I’m getting a bit far afield here, but since I started the thread, I can hardly complain.

      I’ve read of at least two different explanations for the incest taboo/ban, one of which is focused on genetics, the other on social networks. Most people are familiar with the genetic argument. The NYT article addresses that, too. As always, I end up somewhat confused about exactly how high risks are.

      But I imagine these risks could be dealt with in one of two ways: people within a certain degree of relationship could marry and/or have sex, but could be barred from having children. (I think one set of cousins in the article was beyond child-bearing years.)

      Alternatively, and this is the one I raised, you could do careful genetic screening. I assume that some cousins have no real risk because they don’t carry defective genes. or you could screen pre-embryos. I don’t know how effective this would be just now, but surely science in this area is improving.

      Then there is the second reason for an incest taboo. Most people have a pretty strong reaction to the idea of an adopted brother and sister marrying. That’s not about genetics, because these people are not genetically related at all. It’s about our desire to keep family spaces safe from the disruptive energies of sexuality.

      If you had kids who had the same donor but grew up in separate households, you’d have no concerns on the second front, but you might well have concerns on the first. But I’m not sure those concerns would lead me to say the relationships should be banned. There are lesser ways to address the risks of reproduction, and I’d tend to do something less restrictive if it would work.

      I think about the movie Lone Star (John Sayles). Two characters from very different backgrounds end up working together somehow and fall in love. Then they discovery they are half-brother/half-sister. They stay together (I think it’s established that they cannot have children for some reason) and I recall feeling glad that they had done so. Assuming they cannot have children, is there really anything wrong there?

  2. In researching my own genealogical history, I’ve been able to trace one branch back to an arrival in New England from England in the 1640’s. In the dozens of generations between that arrival and that of my own great grandparents (first cousins), multigenerational cousin marriage seems the norm, not the exception. Soon after I started doing this research, I mentioned this to another amateur researcher who commented that a common occurrence for many a new family history buff is the realization that “you are your own cousin.” None of this suggests that cousin marriage is a good or a bad idea but merely one much more common, even in our own dominating WASP culture, than currently understood. I think that the taboo is a twentieth century phenomenon.

  3. Many cultures have had periods when intra-family marriage was the norm. This occurred in human history whenever there was major calamity and there were few options of relatively unrelated people with whom to settle down with. Such a situation has resulted in communities with specific genetic diseases such as the Ashkenazi Jews who are descended from a small community of ten thousand or so survivors of the crusades (killed two-thirds of European Jewry – same as holocaust – just much smaller numbers) black death etc leaving most seemingly unrelated Ashkenazim from the same geographic origins with a level of genetic relatedness at the level of a third cousin in terms of the genes they share rather than actually being third cousins. But even though intra-family breeding breeds in disease it also breeds out disease and breeds in good traits as much as it does bad traits. So there are pros and cons. But in my view the cons are more weighty than the pros since an unnecessarily diseased child is such a horrific tragedy!

  4. Given the way things are going in our secular – individual rights orientated (moral relativism) society, there is absolutely no reason why genetic first cousins, half siblings, full siblings, genetic mother-son (“egg donor”/”donor offspring”), genetic father-daughter (“sperm donor”/”donor offspring”) shouldn’t be allowed to marry. If they are (society is) concerned with genetic flaws in offspring they could always use a “sperm/egg donor/vendor” to conceive.

    But really, what exactly is the point to the government/society giving special privileges to “marriage” when there are so many loving family arrangements that could equally benefit from these privileges. Isn’t that discriminating? (I will answer my own question – yes it is) What does “marriage” have to do with sex? What does “marriage” have to do with the number two? What does “marriage” have to do with children?

    I see that you have a link to Beyond Marriage ( Is this is where we are ultimately headed? Perhaps.

    I think the debate should focus MUCH less on adult’s sexual relationships and family choices and MUCH, MUCH more on the best interests of children – starting with the banning of anonymity and regulation of repro-tech.

    Personally, I define marriage in the traditional way – it IS discriminating by nature – because if marriage means anything then it really means nothing – but that’s just me.

  5. Karen,

    I entirely agree with your viewpoint. Honestly, now that same sex marriage has made the point that it is discriminatory to restrict marriage to only the opposite sex, isn’t it about time that any discrimination in marriage was abolished altogether between any two willing adults. Why after all should the state not allow me to marry my father or my son or for all of us to be allowed to be married in a group marriage. Now that gay people have the right to marry all first degree relatives should be granted the same right. I wonder if gay people will now support the willing incestuous in their loving and committed intra-family sexual relationships, so that mother-son, father-daughter, brother-sister couples can also receive society’s stamp of approval at their choice of spouse and the various benefits that flow from that. For the gay community to stand aside and not fight for the rights afforded them for another victimized and wrongly tabooed group would be sheer hypocrisy and morally indefensible.

    • Sandy commented: “isn’t it about time that any discrimination in marriage was abolished altogether between any two willing adults.”

      Again, why the number two?

      Ultimately, for me, this is not so much about the word “marriage” but about how its redefinition might ultimately effect the question “Do we have a responsibility for our own sperm & egg when combined to create a new (out of the womb) life?

      * If DOMA is seen as discriminating because:
      “…the government does not contend that there are legitimate government interests in ‘creating a legal structure that promotes the raising of children by both of their biological parents’…”

      *Then how does this effect our chances of ratifying the UN Convention on the rights of the child (how do we define “parent”):
      Article 7
      1. The child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name, the right to acquire a nationality and, as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents.
      Article 8
      1. States Parties undertake to respect the right of the child to preserve his or her identity, including nationality, name and family relations as recognized by law without unlawful interference.

      2. Where a child is illegally deprived of some or all of the elements of his or her identity, States Parties shall provide appropriate assistance and protection, with a view to speedily re-establishing his or her identity.

      * If bio-genetic mother(genetic/egg) /father (genetic/sperm)/family (biological realtions) is not legally recognized, then will it become discriminating to say they matter?

      * How will this effect adoptee interests? (open records?)

      * How will this effect “donor/vendor” conceived interests? (open records?)

      * How does this effect reproduction and responsibility?

      *What are the societal interests?

      * Does this promote genetic reductionism?

      * How can the law say that parenthood is only a choice while upholding the right of a child for child support from a bio/genetic mother father?

      “If the ‘donor/vendor’ conceived don’t have any legal entitlement to support from their ‘donor/vendor’ genetic fathers, even if they might desperately need the money for shelter, food, education etc., WHY should any child be entitled to child support from their non-parenting-non-consenting genetic parent when they had NO intention of creating a
      child and were only out for sexual fulfillment? Why do ANY children have these rights? Isn’t parenting and responsibility only an adult

  6. Now that marriage has been disestablished as the basic building block of society by denying its primary procreative role coupled with the spreading legal denial of the linkage between genetics and parenthood, it really would not surprise me what other bizarre legal rulings might pop up next. Frankly I believe that the headlong slide into the complete destruction of the traditional family unit is disastrous for society. The family unit has been grotesquely reincarnated to a cartoonage of its traditional role. Fecklessness is encouraged especially by rewarding young men and women to sell their potential children so as to perpetuate the bizarre new family structures. Recent research on children growing up in lesbian families shows clearly that the girls are likely to be more sexually active and at a younger age ,and boys are less successful at dating. Both sets of facts are very concerning. Most concerning might be that boys being raised in a lesbian household just don’t have much of a clue of the role of a man. All they know about a man is that he’s a guy who jerks off to sell his kids to strangers. No wonder boys from lesbian households find it extremely hard to take on a traditional male role. In the world they’ve grown up in they are redundant and irrelevant except as a paid source of sperm. We are becoming a sad sad world!

  7. Sandy, what is the source of your information?

  8. I couldn’t locate the exact study – I read it several weeks ago – but here is a summary which makes mention of the research that I’d read.

    ‘With the exception of studies at a few universities with very close connections with conservative Christian denominations (like the Brigham Young University in Provo, UT), essentially all research studies into same-sex parenting reveal that children of these families develop normally. There is some indication that boys are less sexually adventuresome, and that girls are more sexually daring. There are also anecdotal accounts of children having to endure ridicule, taunting and harassment from other youth because of their parents’ sexual orientation.;\’

  9. Sandy, sounds like you chose your positions very selectively- That summary is a far cry from what you just stated.

  10. Though I myself suspect that a boy in a very female, lesbian world may feel out of place. As might a girl with 2 gay male parents.

  11. I don’t see anything wrong with having two moms or two dads but I do take serious issue with intentionally sidelining a genetic father/genetic mother and extended bio/genetic family from a child’s life and intentionally referring to them as nothing more than a mere sperm/egg ‘donor’ to influence/manipulate the child/adult/offspring’s opinion and feelings.

    • I’ve recently posted a couple of the most recent meta-studies on children of lesbian and gay parents, and I can do that again. There seem to be small differences–girls are more likely to become lawyers and doctors, perhaps because they are less likely to be bound by gender roles. Employment for boys does not seem to be skewed. It’s this finding that has lead some to say that lesbians and gay men are better parents, because they raise children who are less constrained by gender roles. But obviously some people think that conforming to a narrower view of the gender role is a good thing.

      There’s more discussion of this elsewhere on the blog. And I’m sure I’ll come back to it.

      Anyway, here are a couple of cites: And here is another.,_Gay_Fathers,_and_Their_Children_.12.aspx (I’m sorry to say this one isn’t free access.)

      I’m not sure how we got from cousin marriage to same-sex parents here. For those concerned about children knowing their genetic origins, I’d note that there’s no reason to think that lesbian parents are more likely to chose to hide the role of the genetic provider. Indeed, I’d suggest that kids born to lesbian parents must KNOW that there is a genetic provider out there from an early age. There’s no chance of that remaining a secret.

      If you’re concerned about this issue, it seems to me the most productive course is to make sure the genetic provider can be known to the child, which I think would be encouraged if it were clear that the provider cannot threaten the autonomy of the mothers. Ironically, insistence that the provider must be a legal parent makes it more likely that folks will chose an unknown donor.

      • “Ironically, insistence that the provider must be a legal parent makes it more likely that folks will chose an unknown donor.”

        From a lawyer’s perspective I completely understand your insistence (especially since you are so attuned to all the scary legal scenarios) on this BUT from a purely moral perspective (as a ‘donor conceived’ person) I can only add that life and relationships are purely a leap of faith.

        Personal integrity, sensitivities and willingness to put one’s own interests aside is the only way to proceed. There are NO guarantees with anything – life happens – the law only complicates things and really doesn’t help to make moral decisions. Paranoia, suspicion, selfishness, secrecy, anonymity, legal contracts do not provide for a firm family foundation.

        Integrity, love, understanding and faith are the best way to proceed.

  12. Julie said: “I’m not sure how we got from cousin marriage to same-sex parents here.”

    The reference to cousin “marriage” and hereditary disease arguments against it prompted me to comment on the marriage debate in relation to responsibility and procreation (responsibility for our own sperm/egg when combined to create a new life). Marriage is absolutely not the ONLY way to make a family. The marriage debate really is completely separate from open identity, open doors, open hearts, open family. In my humble opinion, I believe that family exclusivity is the real issue/problem.

  13. Julie, You say: I assume that some cousins have no real risk because they don’t carry defective genes.

    It is not a question of carrying defective genes. We all do. But the effect of defective genes are largely neutralized through sexual reproduction (invented 570 million years ago), where you get two genes to choose between. Non-sexual reproducing species have a theoretical life-span of about a 100,000 generations unless they use a primitive form of “gene-swapping”. No wonder that sex has become so popular.

    When genetically closely related people procreate, they will have more of the same defective genes in common, and they are facing the same problem as a non-sexual reproducing species. Science can’t do anything about that. Sexual reproduction is extremely wasteful, but it serves the purpose of keeping the genome intact. Hence the incest taboo which is common to all sexually reproducing species.

    • I’m not expert here but I thought the incest taboo was relatively unknown in many animal species. As I understand it, there’s no ability of adult animals to even recognize their siblings, much less avoid reproducing with them. (I know sometimes offspring are chased off a territory, and this might have the effect of preventing incest.)

      That said, the point I meant to make was that sometimes first cousins have children who are just fine. I guess I said it wrong.

  14. Julie, the incest taboo doesn’t work by detecting DNA, which is generally impossible (except among orangutans and nobody knows how it works!), but by avoiding interbreeding with the members of your group, which you have grown up together with. Statistically speaking this works almost as well as DNA.

    Among humans this way of avoiding incest is known as the “Westermarck effect” and is exampled in the Israeli kibbutz system, where children growing up together are desensitized to later close sexual attraction.

  15. Most mammals avoid inbreeding and some are remarkable in their level of avoidance. Whilst almost all larger mammals avoid breeding with close maternal relatives and almost universally with the father, elephants even avoid breeding with close paternal relatives. As regards whales, the males are usually chucked out of the pod in adolesence and will never normally breed with his childhood pod females although he will come back to visit his mother and relatives.

  16. I have a different impression of how much inbreeding is avoided in the animal kingdom. And I did learn last year that the humpback whales (which don’t live in pods) don’t have any way to avoid incest. They’re pretty much solitary except when they mate or mother/child pairs. There’s no way to avoid inbreeding.

    It sounds like the Westermarck effect (now that I know the name, thanks) helps explain why it seems that adopted siblings fall within the incest taboo. But it would have no effect on genetically related siblings who were separated at birth and raised by different families.

  17. Maybe in view of the present H1N1 pandemic, it is worth mentioning that the purpose of avoiding inbreeding is not only to avoid the expression of bad recessive genes, but also to strengthen the immune system (governed by the so called MHC system). We would like to think that people only marry for social or romantic reasons, but this is not the case. People tend to marry somebody with a MHC system different from their own, so that their children will inherit a wider ranged MHC system and so be able to fight off more types of pathogens.

    As a matter of fact sexual reproduction is speculated to have developed as part of an “arms race” between complex organisms and pathogens. People are of course not aware of the fact, that when they kiss each other they also “sniff out” each others MHC system. “Love by first glance” may not just be a romantic myth, but also good science.

    It is of course serious that first cousin marriages can lead to a tripling of infant and childhood mortality (like in Bekka Valley of Lebanon), but with the increase of traveling, both at the local and global level, it is getting worse.

    A few species are now so inbred that a single virus infection could terminate them.

  18. back to the gay marriage idea- people have brought up the spectre of legitimizing incest, group marriages and such sexual partnerships. but we must ask ourselves, why did our society privilege the sexual relationship above all others, if not because of its reproductive capacity?
    why is not my non-sexual relationship with my brother, for example, worthy of the benefits of marital status- for example as being named on his insurance plan. We will after all be siblings for life, a lot longer than plenty of married couples.
    Isn’t it becaue the sexual pair bond is recognized as the unit for the social and reproduction of the future, while the sibling bond is not?

  19. contd…
    … or if i, as a single heterosexual person, reach my later years alone, choose one dear platonic friend, of either gender, to spend the rest of my lonely life with. why not? why is it all about sex?
    The only answer is reproduction….

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